LONDON — Even in the most amicable divorce, there’s always one party that’s more eager to get out of the marriage than the other.
So it was with the breakup of United Intl. Pictures, the London-based theatrical distribution partnership between Universal and Paramount that was formally dismantled at the end of last year.
U initiated the split, but Par was happy to grant it. Now that each studio has launched its new international HQ in different parts of London — U in the heart of town on Oxford Street, Par out west toward Heathrow in far-flung Chiswick — both seem equally delighted with the outcome.
Par’s international prexy Andrew Cripps, the former chief operating officer of UIP, is celebrating $1.2 billion of foreign box office in the first nine months of single life, thanks to blockbusters such as “Shrek the Third” and “Transformers.”
David Kosse, president of Universal Pictures Intl., is equally satisfied with the $700 million his team has squeezed from a lighter slate. “Hot Fuzz,” “Mr. Bean’s Holiday,” “The Bourne Ultimatum” and “Knocked Up” have all outperformed expectations. That’s particularly true in the U.K., where Par inherited UIP’s old British arm, and U set up a new distribution company under former Fox topper Simon Hewlett.
“We have a shot at being the No. 1 distributor in the U.K. in our first year,” Kosse says. “We’ve had a better performance than we would have expected through UIP.”
The fact that both studios decided to base their foreign HQs in London rather than Los Angeles initially had more to do with individual preference than preconceived strategy. Kosse and Cripps, although both American, are longtime London residents who didn’t particularly want to move. They argued for the logic of a U.K. base.
When UIP was carved up, Cripps took many of his senior staff with him. That presented Kosse with greater challenges in finding new execs from outside, such as exec veep of distrubition Duncan Clark. But it also enabled him to move quicker to open up new territories while Cripps and his team were fully occupied closing down UIP.
The terms of the divorce meant that Universal took over most of UIP’s operations in continental Europe, while Paramount took the U.K., France, Australia, Brazil and Mexico. Each continues to release the other’s movies in those territories until they open their own distribution arms there. The rump of UIP continues to operate in smaller territories, such as Eastern Europe and much of Asia and Latin America.
So far, U has started its own companies in the U.K. and Australia, with Mexico to launch in 2008. U also withdrew from UIP in Japan and Korea in favor of joint ventures with local partners.
Par will open a Japanese arm in early 2008, followed by Germany and Spain by next July, and Italy and Benelux in 2009.
“You can’t underestimate how complicated and time-consuming it is to start local distribution companies,” Cripps says.
Cripps won’t knock the old UIP way of doing things — of which, after all, he was a principal architect — but he’s upbeat about life at Par.
“It feels like a lot has changed,” he says. “The fact that we’re one company, one studio where before we were a third party, being involved from day one, being involved in greenlight decisions, is a huge shift, far more upstream. We’re (even) asked our opinion about casting decisions.”
Cripps has execs in London and Paris to handle local co-production and acquisitions. Universal has unveiled a grand plan for an international production operation, based in London under former Fox exec Christian Grass, which will spearhead the studio’s drive into foreign-language filmmaking all around the world.